With the Falcons, it’s always only a matter of time until history repeats itself. In desperate need of help at linebacker back in 2016, the Falcons double dipped at the position with a pair of what many analysts perceived to be reaches. The first was Pro Bowler Deion Jones, who went a little earlier than expected. The second was De’Vondre Campbell.
Four years later, Campbell is gone and most of the fanbase didn’t seem particularly tied up in knots to see him go, but he served as a (at minimum) solid full-time starter for most of those four seasons. It’s easy to forget it in the wake of those four seasons, but Campbell was widely panned as a reach in real-time, the kind of player who should’ve gone in the 5th round or even much later owing to his lack of instincts and hesitance.
Aside from the very real whiff on Duke Riley, the Falcons have done a stellar job of stocking linebacker, with Jones emerging as one of the league’s best players at the position, Foye Oluokun looking like a high-end reserve at worst, and Campbell outplaying his draft status by leaps and bounds. Let’s take a look back at Campbell’s reception and what it might mean for newly minted Falcon Mykal Walker.
The usual caveats apply here. Walker is getting a lot of early love from analysts and fans who are impressed by his versatility and sharp instincts, but is getting knocked for a lack of fluidity and play strength. He and Campbell are simply not the same players coming into the league, so bear that in mind as we proceed.
Walker’s reception was, like Campbell’s, pretty befuddled. The first comment on our 2016 draft pick post for Campbell was “who?” and more than a few fans were depressed the team didn’t get Scooby Wright (13 career games in the NFL) or Blake Martinez (a fine player, but plodding compared to Campbell). Analysts were decidedly mixed, with some talking up his athleticism and potential, and others panning the aforementioned instincts and potential in coverage. In fairness, that last bit never entirely stopped being a weakness for Campbell in Atlanta.
Overall, though, the mood was grim because of the sense that the Falcons had been reaching all throughout the 2016 draft class, whether that was for Keanu Neal (expected to be a 2nd rounder), Debo (expected to be there in the 3rd), or Campbell (again, expected to go later). Injuries have taken a bite out of Debo and have ruined the past two seasons for Neal, but all three of those guys turned out to be genuine talents and bright spots for an otherwise middling Falcons defense when they were on the field, even if Campbell only lasted four years.
The most important thing of all, though, is that Campbell not only proved not to be a reach, but also proved to be a more or less immediate starter. He took on 10 starts in his first season owing to injury and never really looked back from there, hinting at the team’s willingness to not mothball a third day pick.
What does that mean for Walker?
Good things, I think. The Riley misfire hangs like a cloud over every Falcons linebacker pick because people remember the busts, but Walker’s a heady player with a lot of experience who lined up all over the Fresno State defense. He’s ready to go.
He’d better be, because the early indication from the Falcons is that they’re going to get him rolling even more quickly than they turned to Campbell. His promise as a pass rusher and speed means he’ll be considered as the team’s WILL linebacker, with Deion Jones in the middle and Foye Oluokun playing SAM and likely getting the majority of the snaps in nickel in the early going. Walker’s also slated for a major role on special teams, but the fact that he’s a fourth round pick isn’t going to fool many into thinking he’ll be on the bench in 2020.
For the purposes of fans and analysts, four years changed a lot. I saw many more draft analysts applauding this pick than in 2016 for Campbell, and fans were generally more bullish on this pick because the team hit on Campbell four years earlier. There were still plenty of “reach” mentions and calls for other players, but with Jeff Ulbrich presiding over the linebacker group and Campbell’s shadow looming large, there was also more of a willingness to let this thing play out.
Like A.J. Terrell and Desmond Trufant, there’s hope that Walker has even more upside than Campbell and will realize it. If he winds up “just” being a good four-year starter, though, the Falcons will have once again nailed a fourth round pick.